Marginalization is one of the main factors contributing to the cycles of unemployment, violence, and social unrest in impoverished urban and suburban areas. Allaoui Guenni is using sports as a catalyst to bring down the walls surrounding local populations, build bridges to employment and social integration, facilitate conflict resolution, and ultimately pacify relationships within society.
The New Idea
Allaoui believes that sport is the ideal tool to break social isolation and reverse negative trends. Since French cities are typically divided between wealthy historical centers and enclaved neighborhoods of low-income and immigrant groups, Allaoui created Emergence’s sports centers in the heart of these neighborhoods; offering state-of-the-art equipment, a broad range of sport classes and social activities, and unique platforms to encourage people to do sports together and to collaborate on the resolution of urban problems. Through effective word-of-mouth and competitive pricing, Allaoui’s Emergence centers attract thousands of people from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds, ages, and neighborhoods, and facilitate mutual help and informal social interactions. Members participate in various social mediation activities that apply sport principles to every day life, thus helping them to identify the causes of conflict and encouraging them to engage various stakeholders in problem solving. This transversal approach has gained broad recognition from social and public services at large, which see Emergence as a one-stop service to identify and understand problems they are often helpless to collectively resolve due to administrative fragmentation. Emergence works locally with schools and education institutions, the police and judicial bodies, former prisoners, fire fighters and health services officers, and social aid and local employment offices. In 2003, the first results of this transversal approach in Le Havre were impressive. Over five years in a district of 12,000, public loitering and vandalism dropped 30 percent and attacks against police and fire trucks by 35 percent. Understanding that no social solution is sustainable without guaranteed sustainable access to employment, Allaoui is using the Emergence platform and sports coaching methods to engage local business leaders and corporate recruiters to provide jobs to those in at-risk neighborhoods. Through targeted marketing to corporations, he facilitates dialogue between business professionals and those interested in employment through sports. Allaoui has developed an effective job coaching program using proven sports methodologies and insertion tools to connect job-seekers with employers, which has provided nearly 400 people in Le Havre with permanent positions and enabled fifty ex-prisoners to successfully reintegrate into the job market and society. His approach has convinced major corporations to work with him, and Allaoui is now leveraging their corporate networks to open new centers across France and Belgium.
In the 1960s and 1970s, faced with housing shortages and waves of mass immigration, French cities built high-rises in large urban and suburban areas, which in the current economic downturn have increasingly become marginalized. Today, more than 4.5 million people live in these neighborhoods, and 750 are categorized as high-risk. It is not unusual for unemployment to reach 40 percent. Over time, successive administrations have tried to organize social services to address the social needs of these areas, but their efforts have failed; specifically because institutionalization has increased administrative bureaucracy and dependency on public funding, and because social services have become too fragmented to effectively deal with the reality of social needs. Talks about a “one-stop service” to centralize the interventions based on the needs of each person have never materialized. This context is reflected in many reports about the state of social work and specialized prevention in France.
In the meantime, successive economic crises have kept populations in splintered buildings in dispirited neighborhoods, where the lack of role models and the absence of professional networks reinforce marginalization and deepen social problems. Subgroups of ethnic and national minorities impose their rules—resulting in conflicts between neighborhoods and regular outbursts of violence often caricatured in the media. The image of these neighborhoods has deteriorated to reflect burning cars and street violence, with fewer from the outside ever venturing there. This cultivates isolation and social unrest, and strongly contributes to events like the October 2005 riots.
Employment is critical in order to shift local realities. With stable employment, people manage to fulfill the needs of their families, gain self-confidence, and improve their living standards—becoming models for others to improve their lives. However, the poor reputation and growing incivilities in these neighborhoods discourage recruiters from looking there. In 2006, 70 percent declared there was no recruiting potential in at-risk neighborhoods—reinforcing marginalization. Without role models and access to professional networks, most people do not know how to approach recruiters. Faced with this growing gap, the national recruitment agency fails to reconcile corporate needs with local realities; as a public institution they have limited contacts with the business world, and limited flexibility to adapt to the special needs of people in these neighborhoods. This may explain some of the paradox between skyrocketing unemployment figures and more than 100,000 job openings in the construction and catering sectors—where little previous work experience is required.
Convinced by his experience as a social worker that the solutions to social problems lie in the heart of challenged neighborhoods and require a transversal approach to questions of education, employment, self- and mutual respect, Allaoui is creating sport centers in areas of social unrest that promote social interaction and collaboration with social services and corporations. His Emergence concept combines activities structured around three axes:
1) Sports convene people from all walks of life. By mobilizing some of the municipal resources devoted to sports, Allaoui is building state-of-the-art centers in neighborhoods whose quality rivals private sports clubs. His tariffs, about one sixth the price of the largest gym chains in France, are so attractive that people from all over the city sign up. To facilitate diversity in membership, Emergence targets companies and offers great packages that include sports coaching principles applicable to the professional workplace.
Sport is the hook to bring people together from local and neighboring areas, from the city center and the corporate world. In Le Havre, about 30 percent of members come from middle- and upper class neighborhoods. Fifty-five percent of the 1,000 members are women—an important challenge in neighborhoods where men often impose the rules. The center advocates principles of mutual help and facilitates spaces for interaction between people who would otherwise never meet.
2) Social mediation begins the minute one passes through the front door of Emergence. The front desk attendants are professional mediators, whose role is to listen to people’s problems, identify risks, and provide solutions as needed. Emergence is also a recognized reference point for local police, schools, firemen, and health services, to mediate conflicts with locals, especially youth, and engage families and local stakeholders, to avoid judicial proceedings.
To structure social mediation with a focus on prevention, Allaoui has packaged vacation activities for children in a program, Sports and Citizenship, to reflect on how the principles of sports (rules, referee, boundaries, etc.) also apply to life, and creates dialogue between youth and the public services they are raised to mistrust. Already a small but tangible sign that something is changing has emerged: The number of rocks thrown at fire trucks and ambulances has dropped dramatically, and the local fire station has begun recruiting firemen in the neighborhood.
Realizing the impact of prisoner releases on the neighborhood, Allaoui created Package for Freedom, a program to accompany prisoners at their liberation; coaching the prisoners through their return to normal life and employment through sports and insertion.
With his social mediation activities, Allaoui engages all social and public services which play a role in local daily life and have progressively realized the importance of their complementarity: Because of its deep local roots and availability (everyday from 9 to 9), Emergence is the one-stop service that governments have failed to create.
3) Employment is seen as the key to provide sustainable answers to social needs— a tool for social promotion and self-dependency. Allaoui worked early on with local corporate leaders, framing his job training and placement program around the needs and expectations of recruiters. “At your best for a job” is a two-week coaching program that uses sports and professional coaching to prepare people to the professional world. Most importantly, recruiters participate in the program, and believe Emergence will guarantee that candidates are worth their consideration. Out of the 420 people who have participated in the program over the past two years, more than 300 have found permanent positions, with most of the others participating in trainings or temporarily working. Most importantly, the cost is 10 to 15 times lower than similar programs led by the national recruitment agency.
Allaoui has designed Emergence as a place of continual social experimentation to resolve interconnected problems. When he finds the right recipe, he creates program packages that are managed by highly committed staff, and that are easily replicable. More recently he has undergone an audit to standardize a franchising tool he is starting to use to reproduce the center in other cities. Construction and training is underway in Brussels, Belgium, and Marseille, but demands are numerous. Allaoui knows Le Havre’s Emergence will soon serve as a training ground for future managers and program directors, and has received its accreditation as a training center. In the long-term, Allaoui envisions that cities across France will see sport centers as tools to resolve social problems, places to coordinate social services efforts, and avenues to lift neighborhoods out of poverty and exclusion.
Allaoui grew up in Le Havre, where his Algerian family had sought employment and found opportunities in the welding sector. Oriented toward the same profession of his father and brothers, Allaoui felt a desire to weld social solutions rather than steel, and left his factory job to coach French boxing. He gradually moved from sports to specialized prevention, where he became a street educator and brought his grassroots experience to a sector often more at ease with observing problems and publishing reports than solving them. His methods and successes clashed with the existing system; after receiving an award for his interventions with at-risk youth, the inefficiencies of the rest of the service was brought to light, and he was asked to leave.
At this point he was already playing with the idea of Emergence. Seeing an old abandoned swimming pool in the heart of his neighborhood on television in 2001 was a revelation. He convinced the municipality to give him the funds to turn it into a sports center, and entered the local employers’ network to successfully bring on board local corporations. With €2M (US$2.6), he turned the abandoned building into a state-of-the-art boxing ring and gym, and started to develop his activities. The following five years were devoted to testing and packaging social insertion programs and quietly convincing and engaging a broad range of local public and private stakeholders to work with him. His work was recognized in early 2007 by the Minister of Youth and Sports, Jean-François Lamour, who was impressed with Emergence’s impact in terms of getting young people jobs—a far cry, he said, from the traditional reports and behavioral studies of the past.
In 2008, tired of hearing that his success was due to his particular identity (his community origins, and his past as an athlete), he engaged in an independent audit process which identified the keys of his success, demonstrated the uniqueness of his work compared to other programs in the field, and highlighted the duplicability of his work. With this document, and eventually with ministerial recognition as an organization of “Specialized Prevention,” Allaoui embarked in a franchising process in the spring of 2008. The first building was acquired in Brussels, and the first franchise will open in 2009. Similar discussions have begun in Marseille and Toulouse. When he is not travelling to expand his work, sharing couscous with corporate partners, or resolving a complex social situation, this young grandfather enjoys fishing and spending time with his three grandchildren.